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Crowding in DC’s national parks during pandemic raises concerns

D.C. Del. Norton wants guidance on what people can do, not just what they can’t

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton wants the National Park Service to close some of its attractions on the National Mall in Washington after reports of weekend crowds raised alarm bells amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting representative to Congress, has asked acting park service director David Vela to close the Jefferson and Lincoln memorial chambers to protect the general public and park service employees.

“I have received reports that the chambers have been crowded, particularly on weekends, making social distancing difficult if not impossible. Closure would protect the public and NPS employees, including U.S. Park Police officers,” she wrote in a letter to Vela.

Norton also said she’d like to see more guidance from the park service and the District on what people can do, not just what they can’t do.

“We’ve got a one-sided message going out: stay indoors,” Norton said Tuesday in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “And that message is resulting in people ignoring it and crowding in other places.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a stay-at-home order for the District last week, while also keeping facilities such as parks, playgrounds and athletic fields closed until the end of April. But areas under the park service’s jurisdiction remain accessible. That can lead to confusing guidance in the case of smaller national parks tucked into city neighborhoods, which look like D.C. city parks but are not under the District’s jurisdiction.

“A series of don’ts is not enough. To combat the virus, we’ve got to begin to speak about alternatives,” said Norton, who said she takes a half-hour walk each day.

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Media reports and social media posts have noted occurrences of crowds not observing social distancing guidelines in parks such as Meridian Hill along the 16th Street corridor and Lincoln in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Norton said that while it was in people’s nature to get out, when crowds start to form, the NPS needed to lead by example and close the parks.

Bowser ordered the Municipal Fish Market at The Wharf in Southwest Washington to be closed over the weekend after crowds didn’t adhere to social distancing guidelines.

People gather at Lincoln Park in Washington on Tuesday. Under National Park Service jurisdiction, it has different coronavirus-related restrictions than city parks. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

More than 10,000 people have died in the U.S. from the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, and the number of people in the D.C. metro area who have tested positive is nearing the 9,000 mark.

In previous letters to federal agencies, Norton has raised a range of pandemic-related issues, including a request for more protective gear for police and safety guarantees for maintenance workers and the protection of inmates.

She also was critical of the way the District was grouped in with federal territories, rather than states, in the recent coronavirus relief package.

[‘It’s unprecedented’ — Holmes Norton on coronavirus funding snub]

The park service website says it is handling operations on a “park-by-park basis.”

NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said the agency developed plans to slow the spread of the virus at its sites, including the closing of all public restrooms and parking areas south of Independence Avenue. The NPS also has the ability to temporarily close the Lincoln and Jefferson memorial chambers if crowds grow too large and to close the Tidal Basin area, which it did during the two weeks the cherry blossoms were in bloom.

“We will continue to evaluate and reassess operations in accordance with the latest public health guidance in order to ensure that the National Mall remains safely accessible for recreational activities under the District’s Stay at Home order,” Littert said.

A representative for the District did not return a request for comment.

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